Saturday, January 18, 2020

Remembrance of Things Past

Well at last it is official, “Marsha & Jim now New Mexicans!”

It says so right here in black (actually blue) and white. And not just on some stuffy old bureaucratic form, but in the personal handwriting of one of this state's leading historians. (That’s got to count for something. Right?) A moment to remember, which followed another pair of memory engendering events of a different kind.

On back-to-back days in December, we saw the Tom Hanks film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” followed by “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” at the Albuquerque Museum. Mr. Rogers and the Muppets were both constant presences in our family’s life during Bram’s early years.  And each event triggered in us what are sometimes called “madeleine moments” of memories. (In Marcel Proust’s novel “Remembrance of Things Past” the act of tasting a madeleine cookie sets off an involuntary, multi-volume, stream of conscience retelling of the narrator’s entire past life.)

The movie was based upon a 1998 Esquire Magazine article about the beloved public television personality. Two decades later Jim still remembers reading the 10,000 word essay.

The museum exhibit, which is on tour, features “a broad range of artifacts related to Henson’s unparalleled career, including more than 20 puppets, character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, film and television clips, behind-the-scenes footage, iconic costumes, and interactive experiences”

Then, forty-eight hours after bidding adieu to Miss Piggy, we attended the book-signing for “Timeless Caravan,” an historical novel based upon the true story of a New Mexican family whose forebears were part of the first group of Spaniards to set foot in the Land of Enchantment in 1598 – “prototypical of the thousands of young men and some women who sought a new life in the new world and became odyssey shared by any number of families in a region.”

At the gathering we got the autograph of one the story’s main characters, Ed Romero – a thirteenth generation New Mexican and former Ambassador to Spain under President Bill Clinton. And, as noted above, we also had our own Land of Enchantment credentials “officially” certified by Thomas E. Chavez PhD, former Executive Director of the National Hispanic Culture Center in Albuquerque, and before that Director of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe – as well as author of ten previous historical books and numerous articles on the people of our new home state.  And himself a multi-generational NM inhabitant.

The book launch was held at El Rancho de las Golondrinas – at which we have volunteered for the past two years. And where we have learned many of the facts, dates and names that make up the past of our new home (the only officially bilingual state in the union.)  But in his book “New Mexico Past and Future” Dr. Chávez minimizes the significance of dates and names. Instead, he says, history is “the story of human beings – people who feel sadness and happiness and pain, people who lived in the land that came to be called New Mexico.”

Some of which we have had the good fortune to hear during our costumed docent duties at the living history museum.

But first some background on Las Golondrinas. 

Most of the structures at El Rancho are original, although many of those were moved here from other parts of the state.  For example “Grandmother’s House” (“Casa de la Abuelita’) in Sierra Village (a part of the property intended to show a late 19th century family compound farm) was built in the mid 1800s in Truchas, NM (forty miles to the north of Santa Fe) and was occupied as a residence well into the 20th century. It is a one-room, 400 square foot (being generous), log-and-adobe building, with a pitched wooden roof, and a wooden floor.

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The adjacent “Casita Primitiva,” from the same time and place, consists of two rooms with a dirt floor and a flat roof.  Both were disassembled (all of the pieces were numbered first) then moved and reconstructed at the museum in the 1970s.  Both have mica-stenciled walls as well as entry doors that require those of Marsha’s 5' 5" height and above to bend down in order to enter. Plus ceilings that 6' 4" Jim can just barely stand up under – as long as he avoids the rough-hewn support beams known as “vigas.” (“Cuida tu cabeza!” (“Watch your head!”)  is the most commonly heard phrase at El Rancho.)

Each residence is furnished with original period objects. Grandmother’s furniture is sparse and simple. But because the railroad came to New Mexico in the late 1800s she has a cast iron heating stove and nice spring bed. The neighboring primitive house is fitted out as if a Grandfather lived there – and he still prefers to sleep on a wool mattress on the dirt floor rather than a raised bed-frame.

Grandfather’s tables, chairs and tools reflect his work as a Santero – a maker of religious figures known as bultos (wooden statues) and retablos (paintings on wood.) Grandmother meanwhile is the guardian of traditional domestic skills such as grinding food and herbs with her sandstone mano and metate, sewing, embroidery, spinning, weaving – and preparing herbal remedies in her role as a healer (curandera.) She passes these skills on to her grandchildren, who often spend extended time with her, sleeping on a small second bed in her casita.

Sierra Village’s main building (“Mora House”) is a constructed adobe replica of a residence in Santa Gertrudis de lo de Mora, NM within which a young family would live.  It has four to five times the square footage of its older companions, three main rooms, and a food storage attic under the wooden pitched roof. As well as a sitting porch – and doors and ceilings that do not threaten Jim’s cranium. There also are several corrals, pigpens and chicken coops – plus a goat pen, which currently is home to three nannies. Like the small houses, all of the animal enclosures were also brought here from northern New Mexico villages.

And as we have learned these past two years, any of the above can trigger a “madeleine moment” among our visitors. And not just people of a certain age. Or only native New Mexicans.

Jim walked in on a Millennial generation woman who had just entered Grandmother’s House and was already on the verge of crying. When she was able to talk, she told of being born and raised in the country of Colombia in an almost identical casita – including the blue stencils, which apparently was the initial trigger for her nostalgia rush. According to the “Encyclopedia of the Nations,” in Colombia “three-fourths of all dwellings were made of bricks, adobe, mud or stone; nearly 15% had external walls of wattle or daub” – building materials totally foreign to those of us who grew up in in the northeastern United States. 

Also unfamiliar to us staid, stoic New Englanders was how emotionally draining being a docent in New Mexico can be.

But it is not only familiar buildings that set off the extreme expressions of nostalgia. A self-professed eighty year old widower from Iowa was moved to tears by the three goats that hang out in Sierra Village and, when they are in a good mood, interact with our visitors. For most of his adult life the visiting gentleman from the midwest had raised the same type of animals on a small farm, which he and his wife had in the Hawkeye state. His day job was at an automobile parts factory. And in late afternoon he would return home to care for his flock. Wiping away the moisture from his eyes he recalled the almost spiritual sense of relaxation he felt while sitting on the hillside at the end of the day with the animals, looking out onto the horizon.

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However most of the visitors who share their stories have New Mexican grandparental memories. 

This happens most frequently in the weaving area where guests recall for Marsha watching their own abuelitas spinning on wheels and malacates, dyeing with vegetable dyes and weaving on two  four-harness looms – in a similar setting to that which they see before them.

In Sierra Village one woman of that demographic was transported back to what she told Jim was an almost identical compound in Southern New Mexico where her grandfather was a successful commercial cotton grower. She proudly, yet wistfully, recounted how buyers would come from the east coast specifically to bid for his bales of the white, fluffy crop – turning her head and looking around as if she were actually there on his farm, and not at the museum.

Mexicans, we have also learned, have a different connection with death than other cultures – particularly the New England one within which the two of us grew up. “Our relationship with death is intimate,” Octavio Paz, Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century poet, explains. “More intimate, perhaps, than any other people...The Mexican... is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it.” Families build altars in their homes with framed photos of the departed next to candles, fruit, bread and candy. They celebrate their lives during the Days of the Dead. Roadside shrines (descansos) marking the deceased’s last place on earth are visited and decorated for holidays. (One in our area had a small Christmas tree with flashing lights and presents underneath.)

So we are no longer surprised when some visitors tell us that they actually see their ancestors at Las Golondrinas.

At the Mora House in Sierra Village one female visitor explained to Jim that she was watching her grandmother walk up the ladder leading to the attic carrying strings with strips of freshly killed venison to cure and dry. And in the weaving area Marsha met a man in his mid-fifties who went into her part of the ranch to decompress from seeing his late abuelita in one of the other buildings – an event too intense for him to stay in that space and just let it naturally play itself out.

And our guests are not the only ones at the museums with remembrances of things past. There are a good number of volunteers and staff with multigenerational New Mexican family ties. However – either because of their day-to-day familiarity with the property, or their realization of what would happen if they dwelled too long on the topic – their recollections take more of the form of almost throw-away comments. 

One of the longest serving docents occasionally remarks about such things as being “born in his grandmother’s small adobe house just like this one,” and then quickly moves on to another topic.

And one of the staffers, a woman in her early forties – while likewise off-handedly mentioning her upbringing with her own abuelita on a farm in Las Vegas, NM – also sometimes recalls, in greater detail, aspects of her past life that are not unique to New Mexico.  Such as the early childhood memories engendered by her own recent viewing of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Where she, along with the two other people in the theatre (all admittedly sipping wine at the time), sat sobbing throughout the movie.

Likewise we ourselves began to get tearful when watching the film a few days later. But the New England reserve that was ingrained in us for over seventy years (plus a lack of alcohol) limited our expressed emotions to a few eye dabs with a Kleenex.

We may be “Marsha & Jim now New Mexicans!” – but, as Mr. Rogers once observed “who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”  Dr. Chavez, and many of our Golondrinas guests, would probably agree.

The Power of Three

Well it seems that in addition to being the “Land of Enchantment,” and “The Sunshine State” (before Florida appropriated it) – New Mexico could also be known as “the State of Being Three,” as in our iMac dictionary’s third definition for the word “trinity."

Perhaps the most well known piece of evidence for this, is the eponymous test site for the world's first nuclear explosive device, located near White Sands, NM. The project’s code name "Trinity" was selected by its director J. Robert Oppenheimer  from the poetry of John Donne, “batter my heart, three person'd God.”

But there are enough other famous “threes” in New Mexican history that could just as well have put that particular number in the mind of the father of the atomic bomb.

Among them.

The lives of NM’s original inhabitants, the indigenous natives, revolved around their diet of squash, corn and beans – aka the “Three Sisters.” The Spanish who colonized our state in the 16th and 17th centuries brought with them the linchpins of their European lifestyle, the “Three Ws” – wheat, wool and wine. And growing population and increasing tourism in Santa Fe led to the creation of the city’s own “Traffic Troika” of speed humps, roundabouts and driver-beware walk lights.  (Okay, maybe one of these is not totally historic.)

Let's start with the first of these named triplets.

“A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister [squash] was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister [beans] wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third [corn] was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

“There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong. One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters—a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals—this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad. 

Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water's edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister—the one in the yellow dress—disappeared as well. Now the Elder Sister was the only one left. She continued to stand tall in her field. When the Mohawk boy saw that she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together and they became stronger together, again.” (“Indian Legends of Eastern Canada.”)

The trio were planted in the same hole – one seed per crop. And each sibling then helped the others grow. Corn stalks supported the climbing beans, and provided shade for the squash vines. Beans provided nitrogen for the corn and squash. And large squash leaves became a living mulch that reduced weeds and preserved moisture, while their prickly leaves deterred pests.

This technique (known as intercropping) originated with the Northeastern Woodland Indians. (The name “Three Sisters” comes from an Iroquois legend.)  But it is also found among other tribes around North America.  In New Mexico it was found e.g. among the Tewa tribe (where they added a fourth sister, the Rocky Mountain bee plant); and among the Anasazi in the four corners area (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico) where it was adapted specifically for an arid environment.

Wheat however was the grain of choice for the Spanish Colonials – which along with wine and olives made up the main staples of their food regimen. Their clothing was mostly made from wool.  So it was that Juan de Oñate y Salazar’s 1598 colonizing expedition to New Mexico carried with it “wheat, wool and wine,” – along with the hard-pitted oval fruit.

All three “Ws” thrived in the New Mexico climate: wheat in the northeastern part of the colony near Las Vegas, NM; grapes around Albuquerque and south; and the Churro sheep pretty much anywhere.

The olives, which could not tolerate New Mexico’s winters did not fare so well.  But each “W” became an economic driver for the expanding territory.

 (W1) At El Rancho de las Golondrinas we have both a community-sized small grist mill from Truchas, NM (Oñate brought grinding stones to construct the initial ones.) And a former commercial one, which operated in the town of Sapello (near Fort Union  from the 1880s into the 1920s. This privately owned business, whose grain came mostly from small farms in the area, supplied flour to the military forts in Oklahoma, Arizona and NM until the army posts were shut down prior to World War I.

(W2) In 1629, Franciscan friar García de Zúñiga and a Capuchín monk named Antonio de Arteaga planted the first vinous grapes in what would become the Middle Rio Grande Valley. By 1880 the clustered fruit was grown on over 3,000 acres in the territory (twice the grapevine area of New York, a more developed state.) And NM wineries produced over 1,000,000 gallons of wine – fifth in the nation.

(W3) The Navajo (now Diné) had been weaving rugs and blankets from their own home-grown cotton on standing looms long before the Spaniards arrival. As part of the so-called “forced conversion” of the natives to Catholicism, the colonists also “converted” the Indians to making wool fabrics on the horizontal European treadles. 

Soon working on the vertical loom with cotton came pretty much to an end among the Indians. In 1638, Spanish businessmen established a textile workshop business in Santa Fe using both Hispano and Native labor to produce hand-spun, woven woolen goods for export to Mexico City. Over time the Natives adopted the Churro sheep (now also known as “Navajo Sheep”) as their sole source of fiber. And ultimately, separately from the Spanish, made their own woolen blankets and rugs, which they themselves sold to local tourists – as well as new residents.


(Unlike the displacement of cotton, today in New Mexico corn tacos passed down from the Aztecs as well as those made with wheat introduced by the Spanish are both readily available.)

The Three Ws traveled here in slow-moving wagons on dirt roads with few turnoffs. Not so in 20th century Santa Fe. Thus came the "Traffic Troika" of speed humps, roundabouts and driver-beware walk lights.

The first two Troika members are the result of something called “traffic calming” – “a term that has emerged in Europe to describe a full range of methods to slow cars….as they move through commercial and residential neighborhoods.” ( Its relaxed sounding name is particularly well suited to the laid-back, new-age, Zen facets of City Different’s personality.

After years of motoring in CT, MA and NY, we have to say that the traffic out here is actually pretty serene. Drivers rarely run red, or even yellow lights. Or tailgate. Local and highway speed limits are not strictly observed – but most overages are within ten mph. And weaving in and out of lanes is a really uncommon occurrence. But then again there are also less vehicles. And the freeway max is 75 mph.

Still some calming is necessary.

(T1) Our only previous experience with speed bumps was an occasional one in an east coast shopping mall parking lot.  We have never driven in Mexico where (according to “if you do not slow down to a snail's can expect to launch your vehicle into flight, potentially damage your suspension, and possibly bite half-way through your tongue.”   

Fortunately that idea did not make it north to Santa Fe.  Ours are far less exciting – a mere three inches high and designed to be driven over at 18 to 23 mph.  We also have speed “tables," which are the same height but wide enough to allow people to walk across – and intended to encourage speeds of 25 to 30 mph.

None of the three communities in Rancho Viejo have these traffic calming bumps in the road. But they are common throughout our daughter-in-law and son’s neighborhood, and our four mile trip to the public library requires us to cross nine of them. Along with circling around a quartet of roundabouts, which according to the Santa Fe Traffic Calming Program can “be placed intermittently at intersections as speed control measures.”

(T2) As with speed humps we had not much prior experience with roundabouts. We vaguely remember the Bourne and Buzzards Bay Circles on the way to Cape Cod, and the Cape Cod Rail Trail bicycle rotary in Harwich, MA (Thank you Google.) Plus a frighteningly frenetic one in the country of Malta, which we rode around on a bus to the accompaniment of much horn-blowing, and obscenities shouted in the unique Siculo/Arabic language of that Mediterranean island.

This Mexican roundabout is not what we mean by that term here in our home town, or in New Mexico at large.  The city government of Rio Rancho, NM provides a good definition. “A roundabout is a one-way, [one lane] circular intersection in which traffic flows around a center island with yield control. All vehicles are required to travel in a counterclockwise direction, to the right of the central island.”
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The traffic circles are in lieu of what would be four-way stop signs – and our experience is that the former is a much more expeditious system.

Something however that may not lead to the same sense of tranquillity are the walk lights.

(T3) In Connecticut at four-way intersections, all four ways have a red light when the walk light is on. Santa Fe shows red only for the street you are walking across, leaving the other direction with a green setting. This means that, when a driver is making a right turn on green, they have to be aware that a walk light may be on – and pedestrians could be crossing, expecting that you'll be stopping for them. Killing the tourists – or particularly the residents – is definitely not a Zen thing to do.

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In addition to the concept of traffic calming we also learned about the “power of three” while putting this essay together.

We first heard the term at a pop-up cafe at the retail space in our HOA community. The owner of the ad hoc bistro recently purchased the building, and is planning on moving his well-established catering business there.  As well as opening a bakery and coffee shop – and also staging fixed-price dinners once or twice a week on the premises. 

We asked if he had concerns about starting an eating establishment here with two other successful competitors in the immediate area. “Not at all,” he said.  “I believe in the power of three.” Which it turns out “suggests that things that come in threes are funnier, more satisfying, more effective, and/or more memorable, than other numbers of things.” (

A gourmet (or even semi-epicurean) eatery within walking distance would be a good thing. And, as civic-minded consumers, we will do what we can to help him succeed.

But now, as a result of working on this article, we have faith that his planned eatery will be a success, even if we aren’t faithfully recurring customers. After all, the third placeholder in the Arabic number system does have a pretty solid track record out here.

BTW: So which is real the “Sunshine State?” (

State % Sun Total HoursClear Days
New Mexico 763415167
Florida 662927101

(Based on the cities of Albuquerque and Tampa.)